This year reading became more important than ever to many of us. Fortunately, despite the restrictions, many superb books hit the shelves and screens. Historia has asked HWA authors to recommend their best historical books of 2020 (and a few old favourites). If you’re looking for Christmas reading for yourself, or ideas for presents, we hope you’ll find inspiration in our best books of 2020 Christmas reads suggestions.
The subtitle of Black Spartacus by Sudhir Hazareesingh is no exaggeration: the life of Toussaint Louverture is an epic. To my shame (as an 18thcenturyist) my knowledge about both Louverture and the Haitian Revolution was woefully lacking. This compelling biography offers a searching account of a man the author has unapologetically named a ‘superhero’, taking us from slave plantations to power, and through his posthumous legacies. Like all good histories, it has opened up a host of new avenues I want to explore.
I livened up the early lockdown with Greg Jenner’s Dead Famous, a hugely enjoyable canter through the history of ‘celebrity’, from an incendiary 18th-century clergyman to the Kardashians and Trump. The light-hearted, personable writing style cloaks a huge amount of research and engagement with scholarly thinking, and the themes it raises are often still painfully relevant. And any history book that manages to move seamlessly from Giacomo Casanova to Sir David Attenborough is all right by me.
Another excellent book with the power to kindle new enthusiasm for the past is the eye-poppingly illustrated A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister. Covering medieval impotence testing, Victorian vibrators and the rise of the condom, it sweeps the topic with a sense of fun but always keeps one eye on the darker sides of the story and the issues we face in the modern world. Easy to dip into and offering something new with every read, this book has brightened up and utterly derailed my 2020 reading in equal measure.
Emily Brand‘s Sunday Times best-selling The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England came out on 16 April, 2020.
To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek (Canongate). From the title to the last word this is a spell-binding novel – tough, inventive, powerful and moving – about a group of men (and women) wending their way through plague-ravaged southern England, from tier 1 to tier four, I’d say, on their way to France. The dialogue is a mix of middle English that swiftly become a delight (you’ll be referring to anyone’s face as their neb within a few pages) and the details are so rich and strange, and otherworldly that it is almost magical.
Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, translated by Sam Taylor (Granta). Short, extremely spare, beautifully observed novella, really, about Russian soldiers (four of them) on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. It is not precisely cheery, but illuminated with flashes of hope and love. Read in a single sitting, tears in my eyes.
Although I read a lot of historical fiction, I usually try to steer clear of my own principal period, the Restoration. Lately, though, I’ve been making more and more exceptions to this rule.
A friend introduced me to LC Tyler’s John Grey series, and I’m about to start reading the sixth title, Death of a Shipbuilder, in which the plausible lawyer-cum-secret agent hero encounters a seeming master villain – Samuel Pepys!
Tyler’s books are full of humour, and the same is true of Graham Brack’s Master Mercurius series (all four books have been published this year). Also set in the 1660s and 1670s, but this time in the Dutch Republic, Brack’s Mercurius is a seemingly unlikely hero – a lecturer at Leiden University who is also a clandestine Catholic priest. Brack’s command of the byzantine intricacies of the Dutch state and its political and religious divisions is impressive, his plotting is intricate, and above all he makes what could have been dry material sheer good fun. After all, why should historical fiction be po-faced?
Oscar de Muriel
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. Food accidentally infused with the cook’s emotions. Mexico in the early 1900s. EastEnders-style family rows. Delicious.
Beloved Poison by ES Thompson. A cross-dressing apothecary investigates murders in Victorian London – while sharing knowledge on everything from poisonous roots to soothing herbal baths.
Linda Porter‘s Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II. I’m always a fan of Porter’s writing and here she breathes fascinating life into some of the most infamous and influential women of the Stuart period. Her meticulous research, deep knowledge of the period and wonderfully fluent style come together to make for a thoroughly engaging read.
Maggie O’Farrell‘s Hamnet. I was overjoyed to see this novel win the Women’s Prize. A historical novel that quietly breaks conventions, a meditation on grief and so much more – it is my novel of the year.
On my reading list: A Book of Secrets by Kate Morrison. A novel that address the idea of Tudor England as a place of diversity is always going to be of interest to me. As I’m presently writing I am not reading but this one’s top of my list when I finally take a break. And The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. I have to confess to not having yet read this but look forward tremendously to doing so.
The first pick is the winner of this year’s HWA Gold Crown, The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor. It’s set in London a year or so after the Great Fire and is part of the James Marwood and Cat Lovett series but can equally be read as a standalone. Apart from an intriguing plot full of twists and turns the period details are skilfully introduced and transport you back in time to a charred and scarred 17th-century city.
My second choice is The Bastille Spy by CS Quinn, which is a page-turning romp through Paris at the start of the French revolution. The heroine is the resourceful Attica Morgan, a British spy who accept an undercover mission to Paris which leads her to the gates of France’s most notorious prison as it’s being stormed. Again, a book rich with unobtrusive historical details.
My last pick of 2020 was a book I actually didn’t think I’d like but, in the end, fell in love with, City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. Set in 1940s New York with a wonderful narrative voice of the main protagonist Vivian Morris as she learns about life and love in the steamy world of her aunt’s theatre in a rundown part of the big apple. A joy to read.
Jean Fullerton was a judge for the 2020 Gold Crown Award and writes books linked to the history of her native East End of London. The most recent in her Ration Book series, the novella A Ration Book Christmas Kiss, was published on 5 November, 2020.
This year I will confess that my waiting-to-be-read pile is far higher than the ones I have actually opened, unless they have been bought or borrowed for research purposes. I have, however, managed a bit of a dent and two of this year’s releases have definitely stood up and grabbed me.
The first is a fiction title, and perhaps comes under the heading many people call ‘quiet books’. This Terrible Beauty by Katrin Schumann tells the story of Bettina Heilstrom whose world has been torn apart by WWII and the subsequent division of Germany between East and West. Set partly on a windswept East German island, it is a beautifully written story about love and power and loss and I couldn’t put it down.
The second is non-fiction, about a very different period and I think one that will feature on many people’s lists of the best books of 2020. The Five by Hallie Rubenhold tells the stories of the women killed by Jack the Ripper. It is a brilliant recasting of the spotlight in a case which still holds tight to the public’s imagination which hopefully will change the subject’s whole narrative. I found it a particularly interesting read in a year which saw the death of the Yorkshire Ripper and the subsequent decision to publish obituaries of him in which the women he murdered were, once again, sideshows. Perhaps Ms Rubenhold could tackle him next.
Napoleon’s Run by Jonathan Spencer. Finely textured, deftly woven, Napoleon’s Run evokes, with a sharp focus and rare beauty, late 18th-century England and France. Better than Sharpe, gripping and intense, this book deserves to be a runaway success.
Two non-fiction books stood out for me this year. One is Linda Porter‘s Mistresses (Picador), an account of Charles II’s principal lovers, including one who succeeded in resisting his enthusiastic overtures. The book is marvellously written, lively and well-researched. It also opens an unexpected window onto both Charles II and his reign. It subtly changed the way I thought about both. Highly recommended.
Equally excellent, in a different way, is Ian Mortimer‘s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain (The Bodley Head). The latest in Mortimer’s informative guides, it’s a deliciously readable collection of anecdotes, statistics and sobering facts, covering the period 1789-1830. This book shows you aspects of Jane Austen’s England that Jane Austen never knew.
At present I’m catching up on a book that came out two or three years ago – Simon Thurley‘s Houses of Power: The Places that Shaped the Tudor World (Transworld). Thurley must know more about the lost palaces of England than is altogether healthy. Like many of his other books, this reveals not only the physical details of lost buildings but the way they were used by their inhabitants. Fascinating.
Non-fiction: The Men of the North by Tim Clarkson. This is a very scholarly but extremely accessible book charting the history of all the early medieval kingdoms of what we now tend to think of as southern Scotland and their interaction with their ‘Anglo-Saxon’ neighbours. Clarkson has a wonderful way of presenting his theories in a cogent way which doesn’t bog the reader down or block the narrative flow. I found it an easy read, yet I learned a lot and it’s now on my research shelf because I know it will be incredibly useful as a reference book.
Next on my non-fiction to-read list is a copy of The Bastard’s Sons by Jeffrey James. This was sent to me by the publisher and I’m keen to read all about the sons of William the Conqueror.
Fiction: I really enjoyed Imogen Kealey‘s Liberation, a fast-paced fictionalised account of the wartime career of resistance fighter Nancy Wake. This was real edge-of-seat reading, made doubly exciting for me as I didn’t know how Nancy’s story ended. The fight scenes were vivid and graphic and the relationships between the characters, thrown together in times of war, were really believable. One got a real sense of the danger, and loss, experienced by these courageous people.
I’ve just been given a copy of Ken Follett‘s The Evening and the Morning. This is the prequel to The Pillars of the Earth and begins in the pre-Conquest era. That’s the period I write about, too, so I’m looking forward to diving in, and am intrigued to discover how it connects to The Pillars of the Earth, which is set a couple of centuries later.
I hope you enjoyed these book suggestions from HWA authors. Thank you to everyone who contributed. And thanks, too, to the publishers and bookshops, who worked so hard to bring books to us in this toughest of years.
Historia’s round-up of historical books to look forward to in 2021 will appear in early January.